Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

How Much To Tell A Child

Besides the actual diagnosis, one of the hardest things to face for a parent going through cancer, is what to tell, and how much to tell a child.  And by that definition, I do not mean an adult child of a cancer patient, but rather a child, not necessarily even a teenager.  There is all kinds of literature out today with opinions on how to handle these situations.  Honestly, I have not read one yet.  I have my own perspective, and for me, my way has worked best.


This photo was taken back in April of 2008, about a week after I came home from my open heart surgery.  I did not have children when I went through my cancer diagnosis, but I was going to have to deal with my children with this particular episode.

From the time that the emergency was discovered, I had very little time to get my affairs in order.  I was going to be facing life saving surgery, but surgery that came with huge risks.  My body is not like the average patient, even undergoing this type of surgery because of the late side effects that had developed with my body since the days I was treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  So there were going to be huge risks involved, and surviving the surgery was not necessarily a sure thing.

But was a sure thing, my own personal outlook.  I was going to get through this, just as I did my cancer battle.  I was not going to settle for anything less especially now, because I had two small children who were counting on me coming home from the hospital.  For he first time, my children would learn just how sick I once was, and was again.

My daughters always knew I had cancer, but unlike when I grew up, hearing about someone having cancer, meant that the person automatically died, they learned at a young age, the very first person they ever knew to have cancer, had beaten it.  And throughout their lives, they speak proudly of their “dad beating cancer.”  To be honest, I am glad I never had to deal with the side effects from the chemo in front of them.  But I do recall what it was like.  And I am certain, that I would have been able to maintain my “let kids be kids” attitude remain, and simply explain to them that “daddy does have cancer”, but in dealing with nausea and baldness and fatigue, I would explain to them that it was all a normal part of the process, and necessary for me to get better.

But the heart surgery was going to be different.  I have explained to their mother that under no circumstances did I want the girls to see me hooked up to all kinds of machines with tubes coming out of me al over the place.  I had no idea that I was going to be facing open heart surgery just two days after I told my daughters that I would just be spending the night at the hospital.  Again, I had no doubt that I was going to get through this for them.

Day four of the hospital stay, their mother brought them into the hospital.  Most of my tubes were all out now, and the girls wanted to see me very badly, and I wanted to see them.  Their mother prepared them that my chest was going to be very delicate until it healed and they were both fantastic with being careful with me.

Today, I still do not think they get just how serious it was for me back in 2008, but because I did not overburden them with “adult” facts, given them just enough child-level bits of info, they were better able to deal with my health crisis.

And that is why, to this day, I will always believe in letting my children be children.  I do not discuss any aspect of my divorces with my daughters.  They know my father died from lung cancer, and they got to see him a couple of times before he passed, but they do not know his gruesome final days.  They will not know the struggles that I am dealing with right now.  Because just as I handled my cancer, my heart surgery, this is just another time in my life, that I have a tough battle, that I need to get through and overcome.  I did not come this far in my life to give up now.

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4 thoughts on “How Much To Tell A Child

  1. D Cross on said:

    Very thought provoking! Is there an age or maturity level in children that you feel demands the real truth? Does it differ among siblings of comparitive age according to their personal growth?

    • If you follow the lead of the child, the maturity level will address itself. When it comes to an illness with the child, of course it is best to be as informative as needed, but not overwhelmed. When dealing with a relative or friend, again, as in the case of my father, my daughters were only informed of his terminal condition, a couple of weeks before his passing. They knew he had cancer, but have always been encouraged because of my success having beaten cancer.
      As for any other situation, especially as far as divorce goes, it is absolutely inappropriate to explain anything to a younger child, because the child cannot be made to feel as if they were the cause of the divorce. And under no circumstances is it appropriate to use the children as pawns. Other than the children being informed of the change of the house (mom and dad living separately), there is really no other information the children to know.

      • DCross on said:

        There is a school of thought that refers to children as being the smartest and most observant members of the household. You cannot snowball a child. They know the truth, even when we might not want them to. The truth always prevails. Sometimes it hurts, but it always wins.

      • And I make sure that I tell my daughters the truth, about what they need to know right at the moment. But because I do not push their boundaries does not mean that I am lying to them.
        But yes, I believe and I count on when my daughters are old enough, they will see things differently than what they see now.

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